The Whore's Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  But he had been wrong about the island. He’d imagined Monhegan as harboring some sort of retreat or commune inhabited by starving, self-deluded, talentless fringe painters like Joyce. Wannabes. (Not that Robert Trevor, alas, was one of those.) But a quick scan of the brochure had shown him that he was wrong. This was no commune. The artists who summered here were not hoping to “arrive” one day; they already had. The island’s other claim to fame was its hiking trails, for which he was grateful. Otherwise, how could he have explained to Beth his sudden urge to visit this particular island.

  The woman in question had closed her eyes and reclined her head over the back of the seat so that her smooth throat was exposed to the weakening September sun. Her long hair hung straight down, spilling onto the top of a backpack that a young man sitting behind them had wedged between the seats. Martin gave the boy an apologetic smile, and received in return a shrug of camaraderie that suggested the boy understood about pretty women who were careless with their hair.

  No, Beth was not the sort of girl, Martin reassured himself, who became suspicious. In fact, her ability to take in new data without apparent surprise was one of her great life skills. An arched eyebrow seemed to represent the extreme end of her emotional range when it came to revelation, and to Martin’s way of thinking, there was much to be said for such emotional economy, especially in a woman. Beth never said I-told-you-so, even in an I-TOLD-you-so situation, of which the ferry was the latest.

  The whole trip, hastily arranged after the shoot had wrapped, was not going smoothly. Both legs of the flight east had been full, which meant they’d not been able to sit together. Martin had been of the opinion that flyers were generally happy to switch seats so that people who were traveling together could sit together, but such requests, they discovered, were far more likely to be honored in order to seat a child next to his mother than to place a middle-aged man next to his fetching, far younger traveling companion. Martin had also been of the opinion that they’d have no trouble picking up a car in Portland, having no reason to know that there was a convention in town. So, instead of heading directly up the coast, they’d spent a day in Portland in a very shabby motel waiting for a rental to become available. And now the ferry.

  “I think I’ve discovered why they don’t take cars,” Martin told her, gesturing with the tourist brochure. He’d assured her yesterday that all the ferries along coastal Maine took automobiles, and that now, after Labor Day, they probably wouldn’t even need a reservation. “There are no roads on the island.”

  Of course there was a downside to Beth’s emotional reticence. That arched eyebrow of hers did manage to convey, perhaps by intention, perhaps not, that she wasn’t greatly surprised if you got something wrong, because she understood you, knew you better than you knew yourself, and therefore expected you to be wrong about a lot of things. Glancing over at her now, Martin was rewarded with the precise arched eyebrow he’d anticipated, its meaning unmistakable. Fortunately there was also a trace of a smile, and in that smile a hint of generosity that distinguished her from professional bitches like Joyce. Both might come to the same conclusion—that you didn’t get it—but only one of them held it against you.

  “No paved roads, anyway,” he continued, after Beth allowed her eyes to close again sleepily. “Except for the summer, there are only seventy-five full-time residents on the island. Five children attend the local school.”

  Beth didn’t open her eyes when she spoke. “I wonder if they have a special program for gifted kids.”

  Martin chuckled. “Or a remedial one, come to that.”

  She didn’t smile, causing Martin to wonder if he’d misread her remark. He’d assumed she meant it to be funny, since it was, but one never knew. “She looks perfect for you, Martin,” Joyce had remarked yesterday, though Beth had remained in the car while Martin climbed the front porch steps and rang the bell. “How clever of you two to find each other.”

  “They suggested that visitors bring a flashlight, since power outages are pretty common,” he said, looking up from the brochure. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a flashlight on you?”

  At this, Beth pulled the material of her tube top away from her chest to check. From where Martin sat, her entire right breast was exposed for a full beat before she allowed the elastic to snap back into place. The young man seated behind them had chosen that precise moment to stand up, which meant that he must have gotten an even better view.

  “Hey,” he whispered, once the boy had wandered over to the railing. “This ain’t L.A.”

  “It’s not?” she said, feigning astonishment. “Really?”

  “Okay, fine,” he said. “But people have different attitudes about things in New England.” California born and bred, Martin had been to the Northeast only a couple of times, both on shoots, once to southern Connecticut, which didn’t feel much like New England, and once to Boston, which felt like most other big cities. But Puritanism had flowered in this same rocky soil, hadn’t it? And after driving up the coast of Maine from Portland, Martin thought he understood why people who lived in such a harsh, unforgiving landscape might come to sterner conclusions about sex and life in general than they did in, say, Malibu.

  “Well, old man, I’ve spent a lot of money on these boobs.”

  Which was true. And not just her boobs either, Martin was certain. Beth was a firm believer in fixing whatever ailed you and also, come to think of it, a believer in firmness. At thirty-five her body was taut and lean, her long legs tanned and ropelike, her stomach flat from thousands of murderous crunches. Her breasts, truth be told, were a little too firm, at least for Martin, better to look at than to caress. Whatever she’d had done to them caused her nipples to be in a constant state of erection. If the boy over at the rail had gotten a good look, he’d already had the best of them.

  “In California,” Martin’s friend Peter Axelrod was fond of saying wistfully, “ugliness is gradually being bred out of the species.” And beauty along with it, Martin sometimes thought. Living in L.A. and working in “the industry,” Martin saw many beautiful women, and even the most beautiful were anxious about some supposed flaw, from Audrey Hepburn’s eyebrows to Meryl Streep’s nose. On the set he’d witnessed many a tearful, whispered conversation in which an actress would explain how that next shot would reveal or emphasize some terrible imperfection she was determined to conceal. Axelrod, whose face had been badly burned in childhood, handled them as well as anybody. “Look at me,” he’d say quietly. “Look at this face and then tell me you’re ugly.” They loved him for that, sometimes, Martin suspected, even sleeping with him out of gratitude. Back in his director’s chair, he’d give the actress a few minutes to compose herself, explaining to the waiting crew, in his most confidential tones, “Everybody wants to be perfect. I certainly hope this isn’t a perfect movie we’re making.” Whereupon he would be assured they weren’t.

  Strangely, when Axelrod himself wed, late in life, the woman he married might have been Beth’s sister, a flawless beauty some twenty years his junior with a face and body whose perfect symmetry seemed computer-generated. Which probably meant that men, ultimately, were to blame. That’s certainly what Joyce would say. It was men, after all, who were responsible for setting the standards of feminine beauty. Someday, Martin felt certain, it would be discovered what women were responsible for, though probably not in his lifetime.

  When he looked up from his brochure, Martin saw that the island’s lighthouse had come into view above the dark line of trees, so he got up and went over to the rail for a better look. A few minutes later, the ferry rounded the southernmost tip of the island and chugged into the tiny harbor with its scattering of small buildings built into the hillside. High above and blindingly white, the lighthouse was straight out of a Hopper painting, presiding over a village starkly brilliant in its detail. Martin could feel his eyes welling up in the stiff breeze, and when he felt Beth at his elbow, he tried to wipe the tear out of the corner of his left eye with the heel of
his hand, a gesture he hoped looked natural. She must have noticed, though, because she said, “Don’t be jealous, babe. God lit this one.”

  It wasn’t until they’d disembarked from the ferry, until they located their bags on the dock and started up the hill toward the second-best accommodations on the island, that Martin turned back and saw the name painted on the ferry’s transom: The Laura B.

  He’d told Beth nothing of his wife, except that she’d died several years ago and that they’d stayed married, he supposed, out of inertia. Beth seemed content with this slender account, but she rarely wanted more information than Martin had already offered about most anything. He would have concluded that she was genuinely incurious except that sometimes, if he’d been particularly evasive, she’d pose a follow-up question, days or even weeks after the fact, as if it had taken her all that time to realize he’d not been terribly forthcoming. Worse, she always remembered his precise words, which meant he couldn’t plead misunderstanding when a subject got unpleasantly revisited. Often her questions took the form of statements, as was the case now.

  “That woman didn’t appear to like you very much,” she observed over her chicken Caesar salad.

  They were the only two people in the dining room. They’d checked in just after two and were told that the dining room was closed, though the young woman working in the kitchen said she supposed, inasmuch as they were guests of the hotel, they might be fed something if what they wanted wasn’t too complicated. Martin had ordered a bowl of chowder, figuring something of that sort was probably what the woman had in mind. Beth had ordered the chicken Caesar, which was what she would have ordered if the woman had been mute on the subject of what they might and might not have. When she brought their food a few minutes later, the woman said that the last seating for dinner would be at seven-thirty, which either registered or not with Beth, who didn’t look up from the trail map she was studying. She’d changed into hiking clothes in their room.

  Martin was about to remark that it was Beth herself whom the cook wasn’t fond of when it occurred to him that she’d been referring to Joyce.

  “She was Laura’s sister,” he said, as if it was common knowledge that all sisters despised their brothers-in-law by natural decree.

  “Did you fuck her?” Beth asked around a bite of blackened chicken breast.

  “Joyce?” Martin snorted.

  “Well, I assume you were fucking your wife,” Beth pointed out, not unreasonably. Martin might have corrected her, but did not. “Besides, men have been known—”

  “I’ll try to forgive that unkind and entirely unwarranted suspicion,” he said, blowing on his chowder, the first spoon of which had burned his tongue.

  “This is an excellent Caesar salad,” Beth said.

  “Good,” he told her. “I’m glad.”

  “Now you’re mad at me.”

  “No.”

  “Tell me,” she said, leaving him to wonder for a full beat whether she intended to change the subject or forge ahead. Change it, was Martin’s guess, and he was right. “What will you be doing while I’m climbing the island’s dangerous cliffs, which this publication warns me not to do alone?”

  He decided not to take this particular bait. “I thought I’d take some pictures, maybe visit a gallery or two. See if I can locate a bottle of wine for dinner.” The hotel, they’d been informed upon checking in, had no liquor license.

  “One dinner without wine wouldn’t kill us, actually,” Beth said.

  “How do you know?”

  “Well, it’s true I’m only guessing.”

  Martin studied her until she pushed her plate away. As usual, about half her food was untouched. In all of the time they’d been together, nearly a year now, Martin had never known her to finish a serving of anything. In restaurants known for small portions, Beth would order twice as much food and still leave half. Laura, he recalled, had eaten like a man, with appetite and appreciation.

  Then a thought struck him. “When have I ever been unable to answer the bell?” he asked. “Any bell.”

  Beth gave him a small smile, which meant that their argument, if that’s what this was, was over. “I’m not overly fond of boxing metaphors applied to sex,” she said, taking one of his thumbs and pulling on it. “It’s not war.”

  Like hell, Martin thought.

  “But yes,” she conceded, “you do answer every bell, old man.”

  “Thank you,” Martin said, meaning it. The question he’d asked had been risky, he realized, and he was glad the danger had passed.

  “I’m going back to the room for some sunscreen,” she said, pushing her chair back. “I’ll be taking the ‘A’ Trail—”

  Martin whistled a few bars of “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

  “—in case I need rescuing.”

  Watching her cross the room, he had a pretty good idea what the sunscreen was for. She’d sunbathe on a rock, topless, in some secluded spot, while the young fellow from the ferry scrutinized her through binoculars from an adjacent bluff. You could go with her, he said to himself. There’s nothing preventing you.

  But there was.

  From what he’d read in the brochure, roughly a third of the houses on the island had to be artists’ studios, though to the casual eye they looked no different from the other houses inhabited, presumably, by lobstermen and the owners of the island’s few seasonal businesses. All of the buildings were sided with the same weathered gray shingles, as if subjected, decades ago, to a dress code. He’d half expected to discover that Joyce had lied to him, but Robert Trevor’s studio was right where she said it would be, at the edge of the village where the dirt road ended and one of the island’s dozen or so hiking trails began. Martin had watched Beth disappear up another of these half an hour ago, purposely waiting until he was sure she hadn’t forgotten something and wouldn’t return until early evening.

  Trevor’s studio was unmarked except for a tiny sign with his last name to the left of the door, which was open. Martin was about to knock on the screen door when he heard a loud crash from around back of the house. There, on the elevated deck, Martin found a large man with a flowing mane of silver hair, dressed in paint-splattered jeans and an unbuttoned denim work shirt. He was teetering awkwardly on one knee, his other leg stretched out stiffly in front of him like a prosthesis, trying to prop up a rickety three-legged table with its splintered fourth leg. Jelly jars and paintbrushes were strewn everywhere. One small jar, which according to its label had originally contained artichoke hearts, had described a long, wet arc over the sloping deck and come to a teetering pause at the top of the steps before thumping down all five, coming to rest at Martin’s feet.

  He picked it up and waited for Robert Trevor—clearly this man was the artist himself—to take notice of him. The wooden leg fell off again as soon as the man, with considerable difficulty, got back to his feet and tested the table. “All right, be that way,” he said, tossing the leg aside and collapsing into a chair that didn’t look much sturdier than the table. It groaned under his considerable weight, but ultimately held. Martin saw that Robert Trevor was sweating and his forehead was smudged with several different colors of paint from his palette. There was an easel set up next to the table, and Trevor studied the halffinished canvas resting there, a landscape, as if rickety furniture were the least of his problems.

  It took him a minute to sense Martin’s presence at the foot of his deck, and even then he didn’t react with as much surprise as Martin himself would have displayed had their situations been reversed. The painter nodded at Martin as if he’d been expecting him, and he did not get up. “You,” he said, running his fingers through his hair, “would be Laura’s husband.”

  “Martin.”

  “Right, Martin.”

  “Joyce called you?”

  Trevor snorted. “I don’t have a phone. That’s one of the many beauties of this place.” He paused to let this vaguely political observation sink in. “No, the sun went behind a cloud and I looked ove
r and there you were. I made the connection.”

  Okay, Martin thought. So that’s the way it’s going to be.

  The sun had disappeared behind a cloud in that instant, and Martin thought of Beth walking along the cliffs on the back side of the island. She’d be disappointed now, lacking an excuse to sunbathe topless.

  “I’m going to need that, Martin,” the painter told him, indicating the artichoke jar.

  “Can I come up?” Martin asked.

  “Have you come to murder me?” Trevor asked. “Did you bring a gun?”

  Martin shook his head. “No, no gun. I just came to have a look at you,” he said, pleased that this statement so nicely counterbalanced in its unpleasantness the painter’s own remark about the sun.

  Trevor apparently appreciated the measured response as well. “Well, I guess I’ll have to trust you,” he replied, finally struggling to his feet.

  Martin climbed the steps to the deck, where there was an awkward moment since neither man seemed to relish the notion of shaking hands.

  “There’s another of those jars under the table, if you feel nimble,” the man said. “I could do it myself but it would take me an hour.”

  Martin fetched that jar and two others while Trevor picked up his brushes, arranging them in groupings that made no sense to Martin, then added solvent to each of the jars from a tin can. Martin, crouching low, managed to wedge the leg back in place fairly securely, then stood up.

  “I didn’t mean for you to stop work,” he said, realizing that this was what was happening.

  The painter regarded him as if he’d said something particularly foolish. He was a very big man, Martin couldn’t help but notice; he had a huge belly, but was tall enough to carry the weight without appearing obese. He’d probably been slimmer before, when he and Laura were lovers. Martin hadn’t doubted that this was what they were from the moment he unpacked the painting.

 
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